Converting tree rounds into structural timbers using only hand tools.
|Historic area of significance||Internationally but with regional variations. Used in the UK.|
|Area currently practised||Varied. No longer practised as a full time occupation.|
|Origin in the UK||Since axes were created though the best work was during medieval period.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1-5
Members of the Carpenters’ Fellowship were identified and asked to give details of any hewers known to them outside of the CF.
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Most of these will have done the odd job, so much less than half of their income.
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
At least 65 have attended Carpenters’ Fellowship events over last 3 years.
Hewing, as a method of conversion, was used extensively across the globe with regional variations. Methods, techniques and tools vary based on the timber species used and local craft styles employed. All craftsmen differ in their methods and techniques but essentially a hewer will mark out the required dimensions, notch out the timber and remove excess until the desired result is achieved.
Hewing was the predominant form of timber conversion in medieval England with its peak of skill level occurring in the mid-14th Century. This resulted in box-heart (hewn on four sides) being the most common type of conversion used between the 13th and 15th Centuries, with pit sawing not becoming common until the 15th Century opening the way for an increased level of halved timbers (timbers hewn on four sides and then sawn through middle). In the 16th Century the practice extended to converting larger diameter trees by first hewing them square and then sawing into quarters or smaller fractions.
The use of hewn native timber in our vernacular buildings has provided a distinctive heavy structural style that works in harmony with our building materials.
In the UK, the move from hand tools to mechanised methods of conversion was caused by several factors; the decline in native oaks, the increase of softwood and the increased availability of saws and saw mills. The craft was lost although maintained in Europe, predominantly in the East.
In the 1990s a group of carpenters, now known as the Carpenters’ Fellowship, started a timber framing revival. Part of their extensive research was to do experimental archaeology using all known evidence on the subject, in particular drawing on evidence direct from timber surfaces and historical drawings of carpenters in action. Research examined timbers from buildings for evidence, with particular attention paid to the use of level marks, notches, and surface finishes to deduce the theory behind the traditional methods used. The theories were tested using experimental archaeology and working with continental hewers. Their endeavours form the basis of known hewing techniques in the UK today.
Since the 1990s there have been a few training courses and opportunities to pass on skills. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum hosted a series of courses in the late 1990s and subsequently the Carpenters’ Fellowship have offered volunteer events providing hands-on training and experience (Cressing Temple 2008, Bucklers Hard 2014, Oxford 2019, Andover 2021).
Hewing is the craft of converting tree trunks into structural members using traditional hand tools alone as part of the pre-framing process. Hewing allows for the maximum amount of timber to be used for structural members with the minimum waste. It is particularly useful for converting timbers with a natural camber and in awkward locations. It is the most environmentally effective method of conversion possible and aids in woodland management.
- Setting up – the log is securely positioned prior to marking up.
- Securing – dogs are bashed into the side of timber not being worked on. They are positioned at 45 degrees to ensure maximum stability.
- Debarking – bark very often holds sand and debris that can cause unnecessary damage to axe blades. However, there are many examples in historic buildings where debarking has not taken place.
- Marking out – when felled, the timber end-grain surfaces are important for marking out plumbs, horizontals and the dimensions of the finished timber. The skill of the hewer will dictate the amount of marking required. It is possible to train the eye to reduce or even avoid any marking and save significant time, however this is reserved for exceptionally experienced hewers.
- Cutting notches – this can be done with a scoring or double bevelled axe and creates a series of notches for more efficient removal of material.
- Splitting – the removal of excess material along the length of the log between the cut notches with a scoring or double bevelled axe.
- Finishing – creating the finished, squared off face using the broad or side or single bevelled axe.
There are many regional variations and differences in technique depending on the species of timber.
Hewing is a sub-craft of timber framing.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Training and recruitment issues – There are no qualifications in craft. CITB have structural timber qualifications but they do not include hand tool conversion as it’s not really recognised.
- Market issues – The predominant reasons mitigating against the use of more hewn timber are the time required to complete the task and the labour cost compared with sawn timber. There are exceptions where hand hewing has proven efficient and pragmatic but generally the volumes required and the timescales for the projects mean that mechanical conversion is adopted. The skill is not widely known so there is not a market for it except in historical recreation work and demonstrations. It would be very beneficial if widely practiced in order to support local woodland and reduce dependency on French imported, converted timber.
- Supply of raw materials, allied materials and tools – UK-made axes are difficult to source, but there are good quality Swedish and other European brands available. Materials readily available.
- Ageing workforce – Around 50% of names supplied are 50 or over. Due to nature of work a strong physique is required.
- Legislative issues – It’s difficult to get insurance as there is a misconception that axes are more dangerous then power tools. Strength Grading. H&S tree felling, Woodland management.
- Carpenters’ Fellowship
- Weald and Downland Museum
Craftspeople currently known
N.B. Please note that none of the names here stipulate earning their sole income, or even a substantial part of their income, from hewing.
- Adam Lynch
- Alexander Harwood
- Andy Hyde
- David Wilson
- Greg Cumbers
- Henry Russell
- Jack Kern
- Joe Thompson
- John Russell
- Julian Bell
- Joel Henry
- Marc Cox
- Mike Dennis
- Rick Lewis
- Steve Woodley
- Tim Potts
- Tom Gallon
- Tom Trant
- Victor Martz
- Will Wall
- Will (Goose wing)
There are no formal training options for hewing alone but some craftspeople may offer short courses. The Carpenters’ Fellowship demonstrate hewing and other skills at events and share skills amongst members.
Post Graduate Study
The Weald and Downland Museum offers two Master’s Degree programmes in Building Conservation and Timber Building Conservation. As part of this course students will study the practical and theoretical aspects of hewing amongst other timber framing skills.
- The Mortise and Tenon, Carpenters’ Fellowship Journal of Timber Frame Carpentry. Number 1-10, 1994-2000
- Iain McCaid and Brian Ridout, English Heritage, Practical Building Conservation: Timber, 2012